The Dark Ages of the Ancient Greeks

What do we mean by Dark Ages ?

The Greek Dark Ages were characterized by a gradual, though severe, decline in material culture. Mycenaean pottery styles were gradually replaced by proto-Geometric ware, cremation supplanted burial, and the appearance of long pins and spectacle-fibula suggest a new style of dress. International trade, monumental building, and the size of the Greek population declined considerably from Mycenaean times. There is no evidence for writing, and cities dramatically shrank in size. The new technology introduced in the Dark Ages was mainly military: iron weapons and tools appeared, and the slashing sword and throwing spear were introduced. In the 11th or 10th century, cavalry replaced the chariots of the Bronze Age.


The later Greeks saw this period as a Heroic Age, and much of our information about Greek society and culture in the Dark Ages comes from legends preserved in later literature. The exploits of these heroes formed three “cycles”: The Theban Cycle, supposedly occurring two generations before the Trojan War and concerning Oedipus and his family; the Cycle of Heracles and his sons, the Heraclidae; and, the Trojan Cycle, the war of the Achaeans against Troy, led by Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus. These legends are preserved in Attic drama of the fifth century B.C.E. and in the epic poems called the Iliad and the Odyssey. The epics were ascribed to the blind poet, Homer, who probably lived sometime between 850 and 650 B.C.E. Both works may have been composed by the same individual, but it is more likely that the Iliad predates the Odyssey by about a century. The poems contain some reliable traditions dating back to the Mycenaean Age: the use of chariots and bronze weapons, large royal palaces, and the Catalog of Ships (Iliad 2.484 ff), which reflects the importance of Mycenaean, not Dark Age, states. Other elements clearly belong to the 10th and 9th centuries: the use of the dipylon or “figure 8” shield, the ritual gift of tripods, and the cremation of the dead. In both epics, the Mycenaean world and the Dark Ages are blended together, and it is difficult to distinguish the date of various elements of the poems.

Greek states during the so called Greek Dark Ages

In the Dark Ages, Greek states were considerably smaller and less wealthy than in Mycenaean times, though the basic unit is already the walled polis or city-state. Social organization was tribal: Ionians, for example, were grouped into four tribes. Within the tribes there were “brotherhoods” (phratriai) composed of members sufficiently related to each other to certify legitimate birth and citizenship. The landless day-laborers (thetes) were at the bottom of the social ladder, below even slaves. Most of the people (demos) were free peasants, who might be convened in the assembly place (agora) to listen to their superiors but expressed their wishes only by silence or applause. There was no voting and it was not normal for a commoner to speak in the assembly. An aristocratic warrior class, based on birth, wealth, and military prowess, formed clans (gene), which maintained relations with each other through arranged marriages and guest-friendship (xenia), involving the ritual exchange of gifts. The leaders of the aristocratic clans met in a council (boule) and advised the king, now called a basileus instead of wanax. Royal powers were not absolute but depended on the consent of the nobles and clan leaders. Religion was family-based and centered around the hestia, or hearth. Zeus was the king of the gods, but the other gods sat in council, gave advice, and even sometimes opposed Zeus. The gods had local associations: Hera with Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae; Athena with Athens and Troy; Aphrodite with Paphos in Cyprus; and Ares with Thrace.

Leave a Reply